The Gingold Group in New York thrives on the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Each month, artistic director David Staller assembles a cast for readings of them, but far too seldom is a Shaw work fully staged in New York. As Staller’s production of Heartbreak House shows, Shaw is still timely, almost uncannily so. Set during World War I, the play is an examination of the British nation; its characters encompass rich and poor, young and old, gentry and businessmen and clergy. In the view of the shrewd old socialist, it is, in the words of heroine Ellie Dunn, a “house without foundation—I call it Heartbreak House.”
Staller has taken liberties with this production, although based on research. From various versions and examination of other documents, he has borrowed bits to fashion the script. More daringly, he has framed the play with a 1940 setting, echoing a practice of the group’s namesake, actress Hermione Gingold. During the Blitz, she would shepherd castmates to the theater basement and perform a play until the all-clear. Breaking the fourth wall, the actors invite the audience to an underground production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House. The framing may seem unnecessary, as do moments of music hall sing-along, but it all works well.
Heartbreak House is the estate of Hesione Hushabye (Karen Ziemba), a kindly bohemian and freethinker who has invited Ellie Dunn (Kimberly Immanuel) and her father, Mazzini Dunn (Lenny Wolpe), for the weekend. Hesione’s intention is to dissuade Ellie from marrying Boss Mangan (Derek Smith), a businessman old enough to be her father. She knows that Ellie isn’t in love with him.
Meanwhile, Hesione’s crusty father, Captain Shotover (Raphael Nash Thompson), also lives at the mansion and dispenses advice. Others show up, some expected, some not. Hesione’s sister, Lady Ariadne Utterword (Alison Fraser), pops in after years abroad. Fraser has cut-glass diction and wrings juicy humor from the driest lines: “There are only two classes in good society in England: the equestrian classes and the neurotic classes…the people who hunt are the right people and the people who don’t are the wrong ones.”
Lady Utterword is soon romanced by Hector Hushabye, Hesione’s flirtatious spouse, played by Tom Hewitt with panache and a booming voice. Ziemba radiates warmth and concern as the easygoing Hesione, though she’s got steel in her spine. Appearing as several characters (a lazy maid, a burglar, an aristocratic in-law), Jeff Hiller provides low-comedy relief.
But perhaps the most fascinating character of all is Boss Mangan. The Boss underwrote Ellie’s father in a business that failed, and then bought out Dunn and turned it around, naming him as manager. For that, Ellie feels an obligation to him. She believes he has been a friend. But Mangan confesses otherwise in a speech that’s powerfully delivered by Smith. “Your father’s business was a new business, and I don’t start new businesses. I let other fellows start them,” he tells her. Shaw exposes the ruthlessness of capitalism: after the other fellow puts all his money and that of his friends into the business, and “their souls and bodies” into striving for success, Mangan steps in:
I’m cleverer than some: I don’t mind dropping a little money to start the process. I took your father’s measure. I saw that he had a sound idea, and that he would work himself silly for it if he got the chance. I saw that he was a child in business and was dead certain to outrun his expenses.
It’s a particular pleasure to see Ellie turn the tables on Mangan, but it’s not the only time that Shaw’s play upends expectations. Hesione boldly points out to Mangan that it doesn’t matter who the men are who “govern the country, so long as we govern you,” an inescapably feminist sentiment.
The cast manages to bring out the brilliance of the dialogue while skirting archness. Brian Prather’s scenery—a props room—consists of shelves and shelves of items and a couple curtains. There are seafaring touches—thick ropes and a model ship, for instance—not only because Shotover was a mariner but also because Heartbreak House is a metaphor for England: “this ship we are all in,” Hector calls it. Shaw is taking the measure of his adopted country. After almost a century, it’s clear that few have done it as well.
The Gingold Group production of Heartbreak House runs through Sept. 29 at the Lion Theater at Theater Row (410 W. 42nd St. at Ninth Avenue). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, with an additional Wednesday matinee on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling, Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, in person at the Theatre Row Box Office, or visiting gingoldgroup.org.